Interpreter Now Claiming Schizophrenia; Legal-Humor Bloggers Not Buying It

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Not this one, anyway.

Reporters were able to track down Thamsanqa Jantjie, the guy who appeared at first to be doing the sign-language interpretation for the Mandela memorial service but who turned out to be … not doing that. See "Sign-Language Interpreter Was Actually Just "Waving His Arms Around Meaninglessly," Experts Say" (Dec. 11, 2013). Jantjie said he suffers from schizophrenia and was hallucinating the day of the service, and claimed that explained his odd behavior:

"What happened that day, I see angels come to the stadium …. I start realizing that the problem is here. And the problem, I don't know the attack of this problem, how will it comes. Sometimes I react violent…. Sometimes I will see things that chase me," he said.

"I was in a very difficult position," he added. "And remember those people, the president and everyone, they were armed, there was armed police around me. If I start panicking I'll start being a problem. I have to deal with this in a manner so that I mustn't embarrass my country."

Schizophrenia does of course cause hallucinations and odd behavior. But as far as I know, there is no support for the claim that the odd behavior it causes could take the form of something that looks like sign language but isn't. Oh, you'd like to hear from a medical expert? Okay:

A medical expert with University College London said Jantjie's unusual sign language didn't look like it was caused by schizophrenia or another psychosis.

"The disruption of sign language in people with schizophrenia takes many forms, but this does not look like anything I have seen in signers with psychosis," said Jo Atkinson, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the Center for Deafness, Cognition and Language.

See? And it plainly wasn't just a "disruption" of the signs being made by someone who actually knows sign language but is temporarily impaired. It was total gibberish. The best clip I've seen on that is from the Jimmy Kimmel Show, where they brought on a real interpreter to try to translate the signs literally:


He does seem to know the sign for "cigarette"—although most of us could figure that one out anyway—but didn't know the sign for "thank you" or "Mandela." Among many others.

So far, reporters have been unable to confirm many of the details of Jantjie's story.

  • One school where he claims to have trained has never heard of him, and the other one doesn't exist.
  • He gave reporters an address for his employer, but they found a different company there.
  • The owners of the translation company he named have in fact (and unsurprisingly) "vanished into thin air."
  • Jantjie claimed he is currently being treated for schizophrenia and even that he was due for a checkup on the very day of the service, but so far as I can tell he has not provided details that would allow any of that to be confirmed.

This news site says it has been able to confirm, though, that Jantjie was recently under investigation for fraud, although it has yet not learned the results of the investigation, if any. Apparently, a former employer claims Jantjie fraudulently billed it R1.5 million (over $140,000 U.S.) for interpretation work he didn't do.

That former employer: the South African Department of Justice.

I think it makes perfect sense that he started to panic when he saw armed police around him. I just don't think it had anything to do with schizophrenia.